Category Archives: Articles

A Beetle Is Not A Coffee Cup – Why Moving Natural History Collections Is Not Like Moving House

It might sound trivial at first that a beetle isn’t a household article but if you look closer, it isn’t. When a coffee cup breaks during a move you just go ahead and buy a new one. It gets annoying if it belonged to a set that went out of production a while ago. It becomes an irreplaceable loss if said coffee cup was connected to a special memory, for example because it belonged to your great-grandmother or because your child made it themselves.

Museum collections are pretty similar to the last case but now it isn’t just about the memory of one person or a family but about the history of humankind. Which means that the loss is far more grave.

Now, when it comes to collections of natural history an additional aspect comes into play: here, the loss of one object equals an irreplaceable loss of information that is important for current and future research. This is of course also true for art and history collections but in these cases at least the loss can be tempered if the object was well documented and digitized. Our beetle, on the other hand, is a repository in itself. Only this one specimen was collected at precisely that time and precisely that place and preserves all information about its environment at that time. No form of documentation and digitization can anticipate all the questions future generations of researchers will have. The preservation of that information is only possible by preserving the beetle itself.

Beetles in a museum collection. The insects are sitting on a acid free cardboard which is pinned with the accompanying label to the drawer or showcase.
Beetles in a museum collection, photo by Markéta Klimešová via Pixabay

Not all beetles belong in a collection

Because the preservation of the objects is so important generations of researchers tried to keep them out of harm’s way. Now, natural history collections are especially attractive to pests and therefore every biocide the chemical research and industry discovered in the last centuries was used in them. DDT with insect collections, arsenic with taxidermies, mercury in herbaria, from nerve toxins to organophosphates you are handling everything that can harm your health or even kill you.

In case of a collections move this means you have to deal with two aspects absent from a conventional household or office move:

  • You have to prevent pests from getting to your objects during transit. This means that the items you are moving need to be packed the way no pests can get inside and that you have airlocks and quarantine stations on your transport routes so you can be sure nothing got infested.
  • When planning the work to be done in preparation for the move you have to keep in mind that you are handling toxic goods. In the past the use of biocides was rarely documented and the only way to be sure what you are dealing with is gauging your collection before you actually start working. This will tell you which precautions you have to take previous to packing and moving and what you have to account for in the new storage.

On top of that there is another danger: the objects themselves. Some of them are toxic or radioactive and therefore you have to treat, transport, and store them differently than your common coffee cup.

Packaged beetles – No package tourists

Transports get quickly done if things can be standardized. You know that from moving house: if you can use standard packing crates they will fit seamlessly into the truck. All you have to do is pack them in a save and reasonable way and avoid overloading.

In natural history collections there are many things that can be standardized: Our beetle will most likely be stored with a lot of its fellows in one drawer and this drawer can be neatly packed and moved with other, similar drawers. But a lot of other specimen don’t do their collections managers the same favor.

Many are stored in glass containers filled with alcohol or formaldehyde which means they are not only fragile but also sensitive to vibrations and their contents inflammable and noxious. You are also not allowed to transport them through a water protection area, which you have to account for when planning the shipment routes.

This is but one example of the many special, non-standard cases you have to deal with when planning the move of a natural history collection. Some specimens are so heavy you need to hire specialized riggers to move them. Others are so fragile you need to get special crates built for them. Many are both heavy and fragile. Then others are preserved by freezing them and if you want to move them you have to make sure the cold chain stays uninterrupted. A taxidermized giraffe or the skeleton of a whale can keep a whole team of experts occupied for days just to find the best way to move it.

Storing beetles – Not a case for your local furniture store

If you have read this far you already guessed it: if you want to store a natural history collection then this storage space needs to fulfill a lot of criteria. It has to deter pests, have a stable room climate, needs a good air circulation and has to be equipped with furniture that allows objects to sit in them for centuries without being damaged yet be easily accessible for research.

Different kinds of specimen collections can have very different requirements. High humidity is a problem for most of them because it enables mold and attracts pests but a room being too dry can cause problems as well. Fluctuations in temperature can rupture the skins on taxidermy specimens and cause fossils to break. An insufficient air ventilation might cause a high concentration of toxics in a room and/or introduce mold. Good collections storage provides the appropriate climate for each of its collections. They are built the way that even in case of an emergency that results in failure of all technology a good storage climate can be re-established by conventional means in such a short time that no permanent damage or even loss of objects happens.

Accessibility is part of a safe collections storage. You need to be able to remove one specimen in a way the other objects stored with it stay unharmed. Our beetle in its drawer is a real space saver, here. Other specimens need far more space. For example, it has to be possible to remove a specimen stored in a jar of liquid from its shelf without having to move other containers. This means you can’t fill your shelves to maximum packing density and you need more storage space but for a good collections storage this is inevitable.

For all these problems there are good solutions but they are not available in your local furniture or hardware store. There are experts and manufacturers who have specialized on these topics.

Whatever is planned for your final storage has consequences for your move: If your beetle is right now in a drawer that is contaminated by pesticides or simply doesn’t fit into your new storage furniture this beetle and its comrades have to move to a new clean and fitting drawer before the move. It is rather common that one big collections move means a lot of smaller moves beforehand.

Ask the beetle anytime

When art or history collections move they often put parts of their activities in collections, exhibitions, and research on hold. A natural history collection that is part of an international network of research institutions in most cases can’t afford this comparative luxury.

In effect, this means that the move has to be planned and executed very different from other moves. It isn’t possible to pack whole collections and store them in a compact and largely non-accessible way until the big move takes place. It must be possible to get access to every collection and every specimen at any given time.

In general, there are two ways of dealing with that: You can limit the time an object is actually crated and in transit, which means that preparation, packing, moving, unpacking, and storing is a matter of just a few days. Or you can crate the specimen in a way that access is possible at any time and without endangering the object itself and the objects packed with it even during the move. Both possibilities have advantages and disadvantages but they both mean that you need more space both in the location you are moving from and in the one you are moving to. It means as well that you need more time and more staff compared to other types of collection moves.

To sum up: Why moving beetles needs a sum of money

With your own experience of moving houses in mind the amount of time, money, and staff it takes to move a museum collection seems to be comparably high. An impression that quickly vanishes when you know the reasons.

Make no mistake, no museum collection is as such “easier” or “harder” to move. Every type has its own, unique challenges. But natural history collections are for sure among the most complex ones you will encounter. And they have a disadvantage: while everybody intuitively understands that you can’t just throw the Mona Lisa on the back of an old truck, a beetle is at first sight “just” a beetle. It isn’t at all obvious that this beetle is a repository that holds perhaps more important and undiscovered information than the well researched and documented artwork by Leonardo da Vinci.

This adds an additional challenge to a move that is already made complex by the variety and sheer masses of objects that have to be brought safely from A to B: the general public has to understand that a beetle is not a coffee cup.

Perhaps this article can help a bit with that.

Angela Kipp


EODEM – It is here! But why should I care?

EODEM 1.0, the Exhibition Object Data Exchange Model, was officially released on September 1st. But why should you, a registrar, be excited about those five letters? Isn’t it just another standard in a museum world that doesn’t lack standards – but is short of people, money, time, and, every so often, the institutional buy-in to enforce those standards?

Well, first of all, it isn’t a standard: it is an exchange model. That’s right, this isn’t something that will force you to restructure your data – although, seriously, there are good reasons to do so while you are at it, and EODEM itself is defined as a profile of the LIDO standard. EODEM is something that will enable you to exchange the data you already have about your objects with other colleagues. Something you most likely already do when you are lending, borrowing, and/or co-operating with other institutions for exhibitions.

So the tedious task of typing data from a spreadsheet or email you received from another institution could become a thing of the past with EODEM! If it is implemented, you can just import the EODEM file your colleague sent you and the information will appear in exactly the fields in your database where you need them to be. It doesn’t matter what collections management system your colleague uses. If one system can create an EODEM file from its data, you will be able to import that EODEM file in whatever system you are using!

Logo of the Exhibition Object Data Exchange Model, yellow letters EODEM with an arrow pointing from the E through the O and another coming from the M
EODEM logo

There is one big if, though: just because EODEM is out doesn’t mean it is already in your collections management system. The good news: EODEM was developed together with vendors, so, right from the start, this model was built in a way that should make it easy to implement it in most collections management systems. The bad news? Vendors of collections management systems are not big software companies, just as the museum field isn’t a big industry. So, there isn’t an armada of developers idly waiting for EODEM to be ready for them to bring it into their systems. Instead, EODEM is competing with a lot of other things to be implemented, developed, and/or fixed.

And guess what? That’s where you come in.

The more users of a particular collections management system ask their vendor about when EODEM will be available to them, the more likely it will be to get a top spot on the roadmap. So, what you, yes, you, the only registrar on staff, the loan arranger, the museum professional who wears far too many hats, can do to export and import your exhibition data with a click of a button in the future, is simply to ask your vendor when you will see that option in your own database.

Nagging someone until they finally do it just because it is easier than saying “no” or “we will see about that” to you every single time sounds familiar to you? Ha! Thought so! It is basically the job description of a registrar. Which means, you will get EODEM if you put your mind to it.

You got this!


Learn more about EODEM:

All about EODEM on the CIDOC website:

EODEM specifications and samples:

Rupert Shepherd keeps you up to date with the development on his personal website:


Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections – Revisited, revised, revamped!

What do you want to see in it?

A calico cat sleeping on a copy of the book Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections

This is important!

It has been seven years since “Managing Previously Unmanaged Collections” first saw the light of day. Rowman & Littlefield kindly asked me if I want to do a new edition and I am inclined to shout: “Heck, yeah!”

But it has been a long while since the first edition and basically, I said all I had to say back then. So, I am handing it over to you: What do you want to see enhanced? What did you miss? What was unnecessary and can be “deaccessioned” in the new edition?

Also, I like to include more of your stories. Has the book helped you tackling a messy collection? Do you like to write a short real-world example? Please, get in contact, I would be delighted.

Have you used the book and it shows because it is dog-eared and full of notes? Please, I want to see those photos of the book in action! I also would very much like to show them on here.

Look into a room with a table leaning upright against a window and some saw horses, indistinct clutter lying about.The world has changed, but some things didn’t. Even after so many years not active here, you can still reach me under angela.kipp AT

With the overtaking of twitter by some people I would rather not be affiliated with, and not making profit of me, I have changed to Mastodon as the friendlier alternative. You can find me there as although I am still in the process of figuring out what and how much I want to do over there.

Ah, yes, the Registrar Trek Blog is its own instance as well, you can get updates by following from your Mastodon account.

Take care and I am looking forward to hearing from you!


The Weather Fire Dwarfs or: Some Thoughts on Sensors – Part 3

I know what you are thinking after reading our first two parts of this series: What dataloggers should I buy to measure my climate? There are loads out there and some are pretty expensive!

Here’s the thing: What makes dataloggers expensive is accuracy, especially when it comes to measuring relative humidity. You can buy pretty cheap models, but what makes them cheap is usually cheap sensors. Now, you probably wonder how bad it is to have a cheap sensor. As nearly always, it’s a “depends”. Depending on what? Depending on how stable your “room climate” (although we already saw that there is no such thing) is and how accurate you need your measurement to be.

One thing you have to know is that sensors have a range they operate in, humidity sensors usually and logically between 0 and 100% relative humidity. Within this range they might vary in accuracy. Humidity sensors are typically most accurate in the middle range around 50% rH and become less accurate at the edges under 10% or over 90% rH, they also might become less accurate in very cold or very hot surroundings. Usually, you find these error ranges as graphs in the datasheet of each sensor or device.

That’s pretty theoretically, so I made a test to show you what this can mean (in retrospective I should have used a more diverse set of colors for the diagram, my apologies for that). I put in the same spot three sensors:

DHT22 (light green), corrected DHT22 (blue), generic SHT31 (dark blue), Sensirion SHT35 (green)

  1. A pretty cheap DHT22/AM2302 1 which is a very common temp/rH sensor in the maker/microcontroller scene and which you will find frequently in DIY devices. It is given with a normal accuracy of +/- 2% RH and +/- 5% RH maximum discrepancy (in which range it reaches this maximum discrepancy isn’t given).
    This is the light green line.
  2. A mid-priced generic Chinese version of a Sensirion SHT31 2 which you will also find in more refined DIY projects. It is also given with a +/- 2% RH accuracy.
    This is the dark blue line.
  3. A high-priced original Sensirion SHT35 3 which you will find in professional devices. It is given with an accuracy of +/- 1.5 % RH in a range between 0 and 80% relative humidity, which means it becomes less accurate above these values.
    This is the green line.
  4. In addition, you will find a blue line: This is the linear correction of the DHT22 sensor which is based on the measurements I did with this sensor compared to an Assmann psychrometer. I found the DHT22 was 31 percentage points off the “real” relative humidity I found with the Assmann at 55%. So, I subtracted 31 from the value the DHT22 measured. 4

So, what does the graph show us and what can we learn from it?

All sensors are pretty much the same when it comes to temperature. This tells us that if we only want to measure temperature, we can go with a cheap device.

When it comes to humidity, things become really interesting:

  1. The original DHT22 readings show a much too high humidity, something we already expected because of our measurements with the psychrometer. Naturally, as the sensor can only read 100% max, the lines are cut at 99.9%. As our correction of the sensor is mainly a linear subtraction, it transfers the straight line to 68.9% for our corrected values in these cases (blue line).
  2. The expensive original SHT35 and the cheaper generic SHT31 are not really far apart. When humidity crawls towards the 70% and over it, it seems that the cheaper one (dark blue line) measures a little less humidity than the expensive one (green line). 5
  3. What is really funny is that the cheap sensor seems to have a tendency to over-dramatize events. As we take a closer look at a drop (and later rise) in humidity on July 27 the DHT22 shows a dramatical decrease from 100% in the morning down to 49.7% at 3 p.m. Its corrected version sees an equally dramatic event from 68.9% to 18.7%. As we take a look at the other two sensors nothing this dramatic happens. The most expensive one sees a drop from 66.3% to 40.7%. Still a mild catastrophe if this were a gallery or storage room (it wasn’t), but a huge difference to have a 25% drop than a 50% drop.
  4. A close look at July 27

Especially the last point tells us a lot about cheap and expensive dataloggers. Not because cheap devices necessarily contain an old, beat up DHT22, but because it shows us the general problem with sensors: they are not necessarily acting linear. They’ll need adjusting.

Now, every adjusting is an expensive step. Devices are adjusted to reference points which means the manufacturer does more or less what I did with the DHT22: they measure it against a calibrated source (i.e. a salt solution) and then adjust the output accordingly.

If it is a cheap device it might be only adjusted to one reference point, resulting in what we see in the DHT22. Just because it was 31 percentage points off at 55%, this isn’t necessarily true for the whole range. Instead, it is very unlikely for a sensor to react linear throughout the whole spectrum. It will react differently for different humidity ranges. This is why expensive devices are measured to more reference points and calibrated accordingly, resulting in much more accurate readings throughout the whole range.

I assume that the generic SHT31 was also only tested against one reference point and that the difference we see in the readings against the original Sensirion when the humidity rises is already a sign of it, but as it is still within the possible error range, I can’t prove that.

For me personally, I wouldn’t use DHT22 anymore, for obvious reasons. I can live with the generic SHT31 for cases where I need to get an idea of a setting and in less problematic areas. I’d always go with the high-priced original parts if I have to depend on the readings for loans or critical storage environments.

So, more generally speaking: can I cut costs by buying a cheap device? Yes, if you just have to measure temperature. And yes, if the only thing you need is a rough idea of what happens in regards of rising and dropping or the humidity, but not detailed values. You have to be aware of the fact that it might show a more dramatic drop than what actually happened as well as it is thinkable that it shows you a less dramatic change than what actually happened.
You might want to turn to high quality products when it comes to your more critical applications and it’s always a good idea to take a critical look at the datasheets to know what you are buying.

May your storages and galleries always have a nice and stable climate!


  1. See full datasheet here:
  2. See details here:
  3. See full datasheet of the Sensirion SHT 3x series here:
  4. To be fair, I didn’t treat this particular sensor nice in the past years, so it was already a bit old and used. I have found a lot of DHT22 more close to original humidity values and usually don’t use sensors that are more than 2% off the mark for fieldwork. But as you read on, you will understand why I don’t use them for anything critical anymore.
  5. If I take the most extreme discrepancies, they are in the range of 2-3 percentage points, which would still mean they are in their acceptable error range if I grant one sensor to err on the plus and one to err on the minus side of its spectrum.


The Weather Fire Dwarfs or: Some thoughts on sensors – Part 2

Picture by Alexas_Fotos via pixabay CC0

A common misconception is that sensors know the room temperature and relative humidity. They don’t. There is no weather fire dwarf who walks to the artifacts and says “Well, here we got 51% relative humidity”. A sensor measures what the temperature and humidity is right where it is. If it sits 2 meters above the ground, it may measure a beautiful 51% and 21 °C (70 °F) while your artifacts are overheating at 28 °C (82 °F) and dry out at 34% behind the glass in your display case with a badly done light installation. You might panic glancing at the 32 °C (90 °F) in your gallery while in fact it’s just that direct sunlight falling on your sensor. Or, for that matter, it’s placed over one of those heaters and gets roasted.

One of the difficulties you face when you decide on where to put a datalogger is that only in very rare cases there is something like a “room climate”. In most rooms, there are several climates. There is that outside wall that is always a little colder than the rest of the room. There is that wall that has bright sunlight from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in winter and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in summer. There is the space at the entrance which always gets a flush of cold and damp air as soon as someone opens the door. Then, there are your display cases.

All things try to reach equilibrium, which means that they strive to reach a common room climate, but while doing so, they create different and sometimes problematic room climates. The warmer air will inevitably go to the colder areas, but when reaching there, the once nice 51 % at 21 °C (70 °F) might become 68% in that 16 °C (61 °F) corner of two outside walls. 1

To get a good idea of what happens where in your room or gallery, you might wish to place several sensors. Life and the museum sector being what it is, you probably don’t have money to do that. What you can do, however, is measure at different areas, moving your datalogger to get an idea what happens where. Then, for the permanent location of your datalogger, choose the place that captures the climate your artifacts experience best.

Next up, we want to take a look at the difference between cheap and pricey sensors, which is – besides other things like WiFi functionality – what determines the price of a datalogger.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this article.

  1. Fun fact: This is why you often end up with a damper cellar when you try to dry it out by opening the windows in summer, but have a good chance to succeed in winter.


The Weather Fire Dwarfs or: Some Thoughts on Sensors Part 1

Picture by Brett_Hondow CC0 via pixabay

When I think about my early childhood, there is one picture that comes up from time to time: It’s my grandfather standing before the so called “weather station”, a wooden panel with three brass gauges: a thermometer, a hygrometer and a barometer. Then my grandfather gently knocked against the glass lid of the barometer with his knuckle and checked the barometer again. As a child I was convinced he woke up the little worker inside, who in return checked if the weather would become fair, rainy or if it was changing. This made perfect sense to me, because I knew there was a special force responsible for the weather: the weather fire dwarfs. After the evening news the news anchor would say “And now the weather fire dwarfs for tomorrow”. It was much later that I asked my mom and she explained to me that it wasn’t the “Wetterfeuerzwerge” (weather fire dwarfs), but the “Wettervorhersage” (weather forecast). Until then, I was convinced that being a weather fire dwarf was just a job like being a firefighter, a baker or a teacher. They looked out for the weather and made assumptions on how it was going to be. It also made perfect sense that this job was done by dwarfs, given the small instruments they needed to operate in.

You might wonder where I’m heading to with those seemingly random childhood memories? Now, my grandfather certainly did neither wake up the little weather fire dwarf, nor did he perform some other kind of magic. He just made sure the barometer, which had a small metal box called an aneroid for measuring the pressure inside, was showing the tendency. When you tap them, the pointer will move to the current pressure, giving you an indication if the air pressure is rising or falling. He also knew that the little markers that read “very stormy”, “rain”, “change”, “fair” and “very dry” were not to be take literally. In winter “fair” weather often meant it became very cold. He not only looked at the barometer – he also knew how to interpret what he saw.

Fast forward to 2018 I struggle with explaining the use and the accuracy of sensors to colleagues. I can’t fight the feeling that digital has somehow taken a toll on our imagination and our expectations towards instruments. It’s especially true for hygrometers, as humidity is far more complicated to measure exactly than temperature 1. A digital hygrometer usually provides you with two digits behind the comma. So instead of reading a little above 50% on the analog hygrometer it provides you with a straight 51.23 % relative humidity. That’s astounding. Sadly, it doesn’t mean what people think it means. Because it seems to provide such an exact figure, people assume it’s more accurate than the analog reading of grandpa’s old weather station. But it isn’t necessarily so. If it’s a very good digital humidity sensor with a 1.5% accuracy the reading will mean it’s somewhat 50 to 52ish. If it is a more common sensor with a given 5% accuracy it tells you that it can be anything along the lines of 46 to 56% 2

Picture by Alexas_Fotos via pixabay CC0

But why are they giving two digits behind the comma anyway, is this just a fancy feature? Yes and no. For that, we have to understand the difference between accuracy and resolution, both specifications you will find when you are buying a datalogger or sensor. What we just talked about is the accuracy. The resolution is often higher than the accuracy. Your humidity sensor might have an accuracy of +/- 2% RH, but a resolution of 0.1. This seems like a contradiction at first, but it isn’t. Let us imagine a little weather fire dwarf who is able to feel how wet it is. He says: “It’s 52%”. Now, while we saw that this can mean anything between 50% and 54%, if we send him out again, he will be able to tell us if it is becoming wetter or dryer than before. And he will be able to tell us more detailed than he can do it with the general humidity. He is able to say: “It’s getting damper, now it’s 52.1%.” So, while the digits behind the comma mean nothing in terms of general humidity, they can help us understand where the climate of a room is heading to and how severe the changes are. If you measure every 5 minutes and get a reading of 52.1%, 52.3%, 52.2%, 52.1%, 52.2% and 52.1% over half an hour it will tell you something else than a series that reads 52.0%, 52.2%, 52.3%, 52.4%, 52.6%, 52.8%. While both series can still mean it’s 2% more or less humid, the tendency of the second series shows that something is going on which makes the room damper. Think of the resolution as a measurement that helps you to see change, just like grandpa tapping on that old barometer.

Next up, we will ask the question if sensors really read the temperature and humidity of a room.
Here comes the 2nd part…


  1. Which is also the reason why you get temperature sensors for just a few cents while you can invest a good deal of money in good humidity sensors
  2. Fun fact: the accuracy given by loggers in +/- percentage values are not standardized. So, a 5% accuracy can mean it is 5 percentage points off or it can mean that it is really 5% off of your reading. This leaves you either with a range between 46 and 56% or between about 48.5. And 53.5% for 51% relative humidity. As most datalogger and sensor manufacturers refuse to document what their accuracy percentage means, I always assume it’s the worst of both possibilities.


Objects are not Easter Eggs and a Museum Professional is not the Easter Bunny

Growing up in the middle of Europe my earliest Easter memories are joyfully searching for Easter Eggs in the garden. Many years later a recurring task in my professional life is searching for things that are not where the database says they should be. For this Easter I thought I’d write about the differences:

Searching for objects is not joyful

pic by OpenClipart-Vectors via pixabay (CC0)While as a child the search for the Easter Eggs is full of joy, the search for an object is all but that. You search for an object because it is needed, often needed fast, for a research request, loan or exhibition. There is time pressure and if you don’t find it, it has consequences. It can mean a whole lot of work for other people, like curators having to search for alternative objects that convey the same message as the original object. It can mean that whole parts of an exhibition must be changed because they were designed around this special object. It can also mean that a researcher can’t answer the question s/he is working on.

Objects are not hidden on purpose

Other than Easter Eggs no one hides objects on purpose. While a small portion is really stolen, most are lost because people miss to record or communicate location changes (we already looked at this in Failures in Figures). The reasons are multifold: thoughtlessness, laziness, arrogance (“That’s not my job”), confidence in the own abilities to remember everything, the belief that “I just take it out now and put it back in immediately”. No traits of the Easter Bunny but of many museum professionals.
Recently I discovered an additional reason why object locations are not updated: magical thinking. The belief just because there is Wi-Fi in the storage and the objects are barcoded a magical superpower knows exactly where each object is. Sorry folks, that’s not how it works.

Looking in all the right places

While searching for Easter Eggs is often unsystematic or just starting at point X and ending at point Y of the garden, searching for objects requires a different approach. If your storage has 3,000 square meters and much more shelf space, you can’t just search everything. And you can’t just go into the storage looking for the object. Instead, the first thing you do is a hands-off approach. You think about what most likely happened to the object.

pic by haru9999 via pixabay (CC0)

“I’m quite sure there was one more, was there?”

The starting point is the last entry in the location field. When did it get there, and can you imagine that it was used somewhere else in the meanwhile? A good database comes not only with a location entry but also with a field stating the date the location change was made, along with a history of former location changes. It also has entries of whatever happened to the object and when – was it on loan, did it need conservation, was it photographed, was it cited… All these can provide you with ideas where to start your search. Sometimes a picture was taken after the last date of location change – chances are the object is still in the hands of the photographer. Sometimes the object was on display after the last date of location change – chances are the object is still in the boxes that were packed at the deinstallation of this exhibition. Other objects that were in the same show case at exhibition X went to storage location Y – chances are your object is also in storage location Y.
You are making a list of possible people to call and places to search before you actually start searching.

A mindful use of energy

As a child on Easter morning it’s great to run into the garden full of energy and search for those eggs. As a museum professional with a tight schedule and a lot of tasks on your plate you have to be more mindful about how you will approach the search. You have to weigh the time you can invest in the search against the likeliness of finding the object.
If the object can be retrieved with just a few phone calls, everything is fine. If the object is needed next week and the last storage location is a place that doesn’t exist anymore (i.e. because you disassembled the shelves or moved into another storage location 10 years ago) it’s probably better to inform the researcher or curator immediately and ask her or him to look for an alternative, if possible. If there is a high likeliness of the object being in a pile of boxes that don’t have proper location entries, it’s probably best to work through this pile updating all locations – you will save yourself a lot of time for future requests.

Make sure you know that you don’t know

Remember as a child searching the same place twice because you forgot whether you have looked under that tree? You should make sure this doesn’t happen to you when you search for an object. The most important thing is to mark an object as “location unknown” as soon as you discover it isn’t where it is supposed to be. That way everyone knows the object is not accessible at the moment and can already think about alternatives. It also helps you to keep an eye on all the objects with “location unknown”: Is their number in the database decreasing, chances are you are doing a good job as collections manager. If the number increases, chances are there are problems in your collections management and logistic workflow and you might want to take a closer look to find the underlying issues.
That you should tick off the things you already did to find the object on your list should go without saying.

I hope the only thing you have to search for now are real Easter Eggs.
Happy Easter, all!

Documenting Your Documentation – Overview

What makes your collection special?

Documenting our documentation is new for us all. Let’s start simple!

First you need to decide if you make a documentation of your whole museum or if you split it into different collections. That depends how large your museum is and if different people are responsible for different collections.

Overview of the collection

  1. Elevator Pitch: Imagine a very important person is visiting your collection. They know nothing about it. You have 30 seconds on the elevator to tell them the most important facts.
    Describe your collection in three sentences. (Normal sentences, not scientific-paper-five-comma-sentences). Important are : Content of the collection, size, significance.

    On your way to the storage there are a few polite questions. Now you have a bit more time to answer, but stay focussed: Give an overview, do not go into details of collection concepts or the donor’s biography. That will come later.

  2. Collection in context: Is your collection part of a larger museum collection? Is there any way to distinguish your collection from the others? (separate storage, different inventory number, classification,..)
  3. Significance of the collection: How important is your collection in comparison to the other collections in your museum/to similar collections in other museums? What are the main differences?

Maria Scherrers

Maria Scherrers is museum specialist with degrees from HTW Berlin and the University of Leicester. She spent most of her working life so far in company museums and collections. She is fascinated by the way our everyday life is changed by brands and how that influences our cultural history and what we will be collecting in the future. In the mean time she is a consultant for company that wish to build and use historic product collections.
She spends her little free time on her family and on politics.


Beyond the Index Cards – Documenting Documentation

Documenting what you did and why will help your future self.

Collection work is more than just storage and object information in a database. Sometimes we only realize how much more there is when important people leave or when we have to painfully puzzle together different information to answer simple questions.

Just imagine 20/50/80 years ago one of your predecessors had documented what they did, why they did it and how they did it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to understand where this object numbering system comes from, who meticulously documented that part of the collection on index cards or where that part of the collection was stored over the years.

Over the next weeks I want to post some questions you might want to answer for yourself. Think of what all the people coming after you might want to know about your collection work.

These topics will be part of the questionnaire:

1. Overview

2. History of the Collection

3. Collecting and Collection Criteria

4. Documentation and Documentation Criteria

5. Digitisation and Object Photography

6. How the Collection is used

7. Storage and Conservation

8. Plans and Future Developments

Stay tuned!

Maria Scherrers

Maria Scherrers is museum specialist with degrees from HTW Berlin and the University of Leicester. She spent most of her working life so far in company museums and collections. She is fascinated by the way our everyday life is changed by brands and how that influences our cultural history and what we will be collecting in the future. In the mean time she is a consultant for company that wish to build and use historic product collections.
She spends her little free time on her family and on politics.


Things Greater and Smaller

book coverAbout a year and a half ago, my editor at Rowman & Littlefield asked if I was interested in preparing a new edition of my book, Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies. The first edition had been published in 2006 which meant that it was long overdue for an update, so of course I said yes (I wanted to call the second edition Things Greater and Smaller, but, alas, that didn’t happen).

As I started working on the project, I realized just how much some aspects of the museum field had changed since 2006, particularly the amount of information and how we access it. As I reviewed several score of new books, journal articles, and listserv discussions, I was struck by how many more resources are now available than when I wrote the first edition. I also thought back to when I started my museum career―admittedly this was back in the Pleistocene, also known as the 1970s―at that time, the museum literature was very sparse and there were no internet resources (because there was no internet). The only way to consult with one’s colleagues was to call them on the telephone (back then you actually paid for each long-distance call) or wait until you bumped into them at some meeting or other. The rich variety of print publications and web resources that are readily accessible now and our ability to instantly consult with a brain trust of seasoned museum professionals via cell phone, email, or web-based discussion groups has changed the field considerably, and much for the better.

When I mentioned that I was preparing a new edition of the book, people would usually ask what I was planning to change. Indeed, the changes are many, beginning with a rewrite of most of the text and the addition of several new text boxes, and a few photographs have been added to the revised edition. There is updated and expanded coverage of deaccessioning and intellectual property rights, and a new section on digital collections. The laws and legislation appendix has been revised, and the bibliography expanded. The second edition text reflects changes in our thinking about standards for collections care and storage environments. Some information has been added about collection management policies for zoological parks and botanical gardens, and about the curation of culturally sensitive collections. One of the most noticeable changes in the new edition is that the sample policies from real institutions have been replaced with model policies from fictitious institutions. Because the sample policies in the first edition all came from real museums, they were limited in their applicability to other situations and in any case, most had become dated. Although I warned readers of the first edition not to copy policies from other museums but to write their own, most people preparing policies need something to start with, so the new edition offers models to provide users a way to get started.

A good collections management policy is the foundation of a great collection.

This new edition incorporates much that I have learned about how the book is used by its readers. This primarily came from feedback from presenting workshops, teaching classes and webinars, and from people who took the time to let me know what they thought about it. It is somewhat daunting, but always instructive, to assign your own book to a class and then watch how they interpret what you have said.

Although collections management policies are very important to museums, even I have to admit that policy preparation can be, for want of a better word, boring. To help out with that aspect of policy preparation I have developed a board game to go along with the new edition of Things Great and Small. I call the game Monopolicies (you can guess what board game inspired it) and after some beta testing, it is nearly ready for a public launch. The idea is that instead of those dry and interminable discussions with colleagues about collections management policies for your institution the staff can, instead, have their discussions in a more relaxed atmosphere while having fun playing a game. Monopolicies will be made available in early spring as a free download—watch for it! (Update 2018/02/04: It’s available for download here: )

Things Great and Small is available now from the publisher ( and other booksellers.

John E. Simmons
Adjunct Curator of Collections, Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum & Art Gallery, Penn State University